tv 1980s AIDS Crisis CSPAN April 6, 2019 3:40pm-3:55pm EDT
the 1980's. she describes how those with aids often faced discrimination in housing, jobs, and when seeking medical treatment. she also outlines some of the protections later provided in the americans with disabilities act. this 12 minute interview was recorded in chicago at the american historical association annual meeting. >> nancy brown, when did aids rise to the national consciousness? >> it first came to public attention in 1981 with a few articles in "the new york times" and other places. there were reports of homosexual men who had some strange types of cancers and pneumonia. 1982, there were a few more reports and at the end of 1982, there were reports that it had been seen in infants and also there was some discussion about it was in the blood bank. but 1983 was really the big year
this was in the headlines and that was the year that the real phobia about aids began because all of a sudden people understood that it was in the blood bank and women were getting it, hemophiliacs were getting it. there wasn't a sure understanding of how it was being transmitted. so i would say that was the first big, public fear about aids. >> so what is it and what have we learned since the diagnosis first became public in the 1980's? >> that's a big question. aids is a retrovirus and you get it through sexual contact or like blood transfusions or i.v. drug use. it's blood contact to blood contact. it is a virus that infects the t-cells. your helper t-cells are what direct your body's immune system. so when they're gone, your body doesn't know what to do when it's confronted. aids itself is what destroys your body's immune system and
then people die from the opportunistic infections. so in the beginning, people with aids got kaposi's sarcoma and pneumocystis pneumonia. those were the markers but there were a whole realm of fungus infections, parasitic infections, people lost weight. when we talk about aids, it's the final stage of the body's failure to respond to infection. since then, there has been, you know, it was in 1983-1984 they discovered it was viral. before that, they didn't know and since then, they have developed different treatments . in 1987 was the first treatment and that was the a.z.t., but what happened is people's bodies became resistant to the medicine. in 1985 then you had the idea of this cocktail, that there were three to four different
medicines that people would take at the same time and they all addressed different parts of the virus reproduction cycle and that is still where people are. there are some new medications that people can take post-sexual contact, there are medications people can take before sexual contact and of course people are still encouraged to use condoms. so what we have learned is there are all sorts of things of where the virus came from. we haven't learned a vaccine for the virus and there still is not a cure, but they are getting to the point where people's viral loads are so low that they can't be detected. there is some hope that there is a chance that there may be a permanent treatment in the future. >> ronald reagan in the white house at the time, what kind of grade would you give his administration in dealing with the issue early on? >> f. ronald reagan himself didn't
speak about aids, didn't say the word aids until i think 1987. and there was a real lack of quick reaction in terms of funding and providing assistance to people who had aids. i think it was -- it was all part of, it was also happening at the time of recession. it was happening at the time the reagan administration was trying to pull back some of the programs for healthcare. so altogether, that resulted in a very slow uptake of what can we do to help people with aids and what we can do about this virus. >> and yet one of the ironies, one of his good friends, rock hudson, died from aids. did that impact his thinking? >> i don't personally know if it impacted his thinking. i know nancy reagan became very involved with, like in the later 1980's and befriended ryan white, who was a teenager who
got aids, so i don't think he ever came out in strong support of let's increase funding and a public voice, but, you know, as his second term was coming to an end, he was more outspoken about it. >> when did we begin to turn the tide in terms of public awareness, education, letting those who conducted that type of activity to avoid it and also the research and medication? >> that's a big question, too. i'm going to kind of stick a little bit in the 1980's and 1990's. so in terms of medication, you had 1987 was the a.z.t. and 1995 was the cocktail. the funding for education in the 1980's was problematic because there was a difference in what the -- there were some reports, there was a public mailing about how to avoid getting aids, but in terms of the people who are actually more likely to get
aids, gay men, i.v. drug users, there was a real resistance to getting them information that was helpful for them and the idea was you didn't want to encourage that behavior or activity, so you would talk around the issue and not be direct about what needed to be done. in 1987, jesse helms introduced an amendment it was called the no promo homo, so any education could not be seen to encourage homosexual activity. in the late 1980's, you have a turn in public opinion and a sympathy for people with aids. that is a shift in the bush administration early years. but you still have difficulty educating people and wanting to confront what the issues are that cause people to be i.v.
drug users and how do you get them clean needles, and is that acceptable. so there is still a lot of issues around aids education. >> your paper is titled embracing disability aids , activism and the americans with disabilities act. explain. >> i'm looking at aids as a disability and how that was a key to turning the tide towards protecting people with aids from discrimination. so one of the points i'm looking at in my paper at the conference is what happened in new york city. in new york city they had human rights laws that were more expansive than the federal laws. so it protected people in housing, employment and accommodation. as a disability, somebody who was discriminated because they had aids could go to this legislation, they could go to the human rights commission of new york city and new york state and file a complaint and have it investigated and potentially get
their job back or get help with housing. the commissions looked at funeral homes and looked at hospitals, so that was, i kind of look at that line about how being disabled gave people with aids some civil rights that they didn't have. >> and how do you research the other part of that component, those with physical disabilities as part of the a.d.a.? >> because there were a couple of organizations, like the leadership conference on civil rights and it included the members, national gay task force, human rights campaign fund, gay rights national lobby and also campaign for the disability rights and defense fund and a couple of other disability rights organizations. so they came together and when it came time for the civil rights restoration act, the fair housing amendment act and the americans with disability act, there was a push to carve out
aids. so these were going to protect people with disabilities, but some of the conservative and religious organizations wanted to carve out aids and say but not people with aids. this is where they all came together and stood behind people with aids and said no, we're not going to let it carve out. the whole idea was the americans with disabilities act, it was the fear of people with disabilities, discrimination against people with disabilities. at that point they knew that aids wasn't contagious with casual contact. to not allow somebody to have protection from being fired because they had aids because people were afraid they were contagious wasn't acceptable. >> all of this part of your doctoral dissertation? >> yes, i look at social security, new york city, the civil rights restoration act and the americans with disability act and kind of how that strand
of to be disabled was to have more rights than somebody that was gay and lesbian and in new york city, that changed people's opinions about why are we protecting people with aids and yet it's ok to fire somebody who is gay or it's ok to evict somebody who is a lesbian. >> we should point out, you are studying at purdue university. >> yes. >> i remember "newsweek" and "time magazine" cover stories, the aids crisis in the 1980's. >> that was 1983. >> is it still a crisis today? >> if you think of people dying quick deaths, no. but if you look worldwide, it is still a crisis. in 2017 over, not over, but close to a million people died of aids. there is still pockets of -- in indiana there was a city that had a small population of i.v. drug users that all got infected with aids.
so i would say there is still a large number of people who have it worldwide. there are people dying from it. we still don't have drug treatment. so i would say the crisis has changed, but i think it's still a crisis. >> and are we more tolerant of gays and lesbians today than we were in the 1970's and 1980's? >> i think many people are. i think it's still a point of contention and in new york city, they did a gay and lesbian discrimination documentation project in the 1980's. when you read it, it's horrifying, the number of people who were assaulted on the streets, the number of people who were kicked out of their apartments, lost their jobs, arrested and all sorts of things like that. i don't think it's that obvious anymore, but i think it's still people who feel that it's a moral issue so i think there is
still a ways to go. >> and finally, nancy brown, why did you gravitate to this issue, to these issues really? >> that is a little bit of a long story. i came to purdue to study german immigrants. from fort wayne, indiana. >> quite a contrast. >> i'm getting ready to do my pre-lims, which is you're ready to start writing your dissertation and professor randy roberts, i was taking his class and i couldn't come up with a topic. and he said why don't you do ryan white. i thought that's a good topic for me. i had a child with some educational difficulties, we went through due process experience, ryan white, that's a topic. once i started getting into it, it just became a very passionate topic for me and so i went from a class to a new dissertation. >> we thank you for your time. >> thank you. >> watch the american story
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